Wednesday, August 11, 2010

State Experts vs. Defense Expert: Us versus Them

The most heated seminar I have ever attended was one at an annual meeting of NEAFS. (The Northeastern Association of Forensic Scientists for those not in the know) The seminar was titled "Debating the science in Forensic Science" and featured a panel of both state and defense experts as well as a few college instructors. This is clearly a recipe for high tempers!

One person on the panel was an academic...a very outspoken academic...who had not actually performed the work she was passing judgment on. As one can imagine, this was not well received by those in the audience. The effect of her speech (whether she intended it that way or not) was that crime lab staff were biased towards the state and that their work was not held to the same scientific level that research is held to. I would argue that neither of those statements are necessarily true.

Over the years of going to conferences I have found that there are two real constants in the forensic community. One is the passion involved in the work. No one enters forensics for the money! Every single one of them is passionate about what they do. The other constant is the duality of us versus them. "Us" being state, federal, or municipal employees and "them" being (dramatic music) defense experts.

The unfortunate fact is that there are defense experts who will simply testify to anything for the paycheck. Their science changes based on the case and what is convenient to say at the time. They lack credibility and no matter how credible the other side, there is a taint to having a "battle of the experts" with someone who will say anything for the right amount of money.

The role of an expert witness is simply to explain the science as objectively as possible in terms that a lay person would be familiar with. It's very simple. We don't need to make judgments on guilt, we don't need to argue legalities. All we have to say is the absolute truth to the best of our knowledge and explain it so that those without a science background they can still understand. Easy.

Now, have I felt a person was guilty during a case? Of course. I'm human. Did that change what I would testify about? Absolutely not. In fact when the scenario presented by the defense was supported by the math I made sure that the state's attorneys knew it. The attorneys get to argue their version of truth and the fact finder decides. An expert witness should never change their testimony based on whether they feel the person is guilty or not. As long as you always remember that, testifying is easy, and there's no need to worry about statements against your credibility.

There have certainly been cases of misconduct in crime labs, whether through ignorance or intent. These always make the news, and the panel at this particular seminar did discuss some recent instances that had been reported. The academic previously mentioned, extrapolated that to say all crime lab employees are biased towards the prosecution because of their associations with police officers or through overt pressure from superiors to alter a case. This resulted, as you can imagine, in a room filled with red faced people clenching their fists, while the vast majority of the rest of the room frantically raised hands to give their two cents.

I believe overt pressure is truly rare. It is the very rare case where personnel are told to alter results, and I believe that it is truly rare for a forensic scientist to falsify results. Those are the extreme and rare cases.

I do believe however that at times there is a covert pressure. Not to lie or falsify data or anything so dramatic, but in perhaps in not raising as many issues as we may have noticed. We spend the vast majority of our waking hours at our place of employment. People always want that place to be a comfortable place. When you raise issues or say unpopular things, that work place can become a very tense place. Unhappy attorneys tend to be vocal. (This indeed may be an understatement.) So whether we raise issues we know we should or not becomes a difficult question sometimes. I believe that is where most of pressure, if there is any at all arises.

Now as someone who has transitioned from an us to a them I find myself wanting to redefine the term "defense expert" in the forensic community. Being independent does not have to mean being unethical. In fact my credibility arises from the fact that I do have a strong ethical background. My role now is the same as it ever was as a state chemist, to translate the science into layman's terms, to do the math and let the attorneys argue what is "true."

The crime of the academic on the panel was taking a small number of cases where there had been misconduct by the laboratory personnel and applying a bias to all crime lab personnel. The vast majority of forensic scientist are however very honest and ethical in their work. This extrapolation from few to many is the same reason that "defense expert" is a dirty word in the forensic community.

Although we can not force others to behave ethically, we as scientist should always remember to hold ourselves to a high ethical standard. Arguing more passionately for the state does not counteract an unethical defense expert, but in fact adds a sense of bias to the fact finders that simply should not be there in either witness.

As for the panel at the conference, it had to be cut short...

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